A who’s who in San Antonio’s successful campaign for World Heritage designation for the Alamo and four Missions gathered at a Centro San Antonio luncheon Wednesday for a program exploring the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead, two months after winning the rare and coveted UNESCO recognition at the annual World Heritage Committee meeting in Bonn, Germany.
“San Antonio has joined an international fraternity, an elite club,” said Andrew Potts, the executive director of US/ICOMOS, the Washington-based chapter of the International Council of Monuments and Sites, the non-governmental international organization dedicated to the conservation of the world’s World Heritage monuments and sites.
Noting that the last World Heritage Committee designation of a U.S. site was in 1992, Potts said, “It’s been almost 25 years since the United States succeeded in getting a building listed, the 1,000-year-old Taos Pueblo in New Mexico. “It’s an amazing accomplishment and you’ve done a service to the entire United States.”
You could sense spirits rising in the room as members of the audience smiled with pride.
The program opened with Centro President and CEO Pat DiGiovanni praising San Antonio’s commitment to preservation, and introducing Councilmember Rebecca Viagran (D3) whose district includes the four Missions and who is taking the lead on behalf of City Council and as a member of the World Heritage Advisory Committee to engage all the stakeholders in exploring how San Antonio can best protect, preserve, promote and profit from the World Heritage inscription.
Viagran introduced Mayor Ivy Taylor, who joined Bexar County Nelson Wolff in leading the San Antonio delegation, which included Viagran, to Bonn in July. Taylor took her teenage daughter, Morgan, on the trip, which “opened up a whole new vista” for the young woman as she joined local leaders who traveled by train to visit potential Sister Cities in Germany, a tour that included a trip to the city of Essen and its World Heritage site, the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex.
It’s that same kind of transformative experience, Mayor Taylor said, that San Antonio wants to give visitors to this city’s World Heritage Site.
“All the data indicates that travelers from Millennials on up are seeking authenticity, an authentic experience,” Taylor said.
Little time was spent on self-congratulations. Wednesday’s lunch was all about the opportunities that lie ahead if San Antonio embraces the World Heritage Committee’s values and standards, captured in three words: “outstanding universal values.”
The program’s keynote speaker was John Nau, the Houston-based president and CEO of Silver Eagle, the state’s largest distributor of Anheuser-Busch beverages, who has become one of the strongest voices and most generous philanthropists in the state for supporting historical preservation. Nau was an early benefactor for the Missions, contributing to the Archdiocese’s $15.5 million restoration program of the churches led by Father David Garcia. He was appointed by Gov. Greg Abbott as chairman of the Texas Historical Commission and sits on the advisory board for the National Park Service.
“There aren’t many World Heritage sites,” Nau said, congratulating the audience. There only 23 in the United States and 1,031 worldwide. “It’s a great accomplishment, but it just begins the next phase in the journey.”
Nau said one challenge is that steady decline in federal funding of the National Park Service. San Antonio Missions National Historic Park is one of 40 of the 406 National park sites that is supported in part by a nonprofit foundation, Los Compadres de San Antonio Missions. He drew applause when he pledged to continue Silver Eagle’s support for what he described as San Antonio’s “asset.”
Nau cited the “Four Ps: protect the asset; preserve the asset; promote the asset; and, profit from visitation and education.”
The National Park Service and San Antonio won’t be able to do it without “corporate support and philanthropy.” Seeking such support, he said, would not clash with upholding World Heritage standards, but could provide the funding for the city to build a “world-class visitor center,” presumably at the Alamo, which Nau said is the city’s visitor magnet and needs to be used to get people to continue on south to experience the four Missions, which doesn’t happen now.
“I don’t want to put a Bud Light neon on Jefferson’s forehead at Mount Rushmore,” Nau quipped.
Nau challenged the audience to find ways to turn every World Heritage visitor into 10 more visitors, by sending each one home with such an authentic experience that they tell 10 friends the trip is a “must-do.”
After Nau’s speech, Paula Owen, president of the Southwest School of Art, moderated a panel that included Potts; Susan Snow, the NPS’ World Heritage coordinator and archeologist here; Betty Bueche, Bexar County’s heritage director and a founder of Los Compadres; Cassandra Matey, executive director of the San Antonio Convention & Visitors Bureau; and Michael Guarino, an architect with Ford, Powell, and Carson and the chairman of the City’s Historic and Design Review Commission.
Bueche, a longtime preservationist, recalled growing up near Mission San José, which she called her childhood backyard, and even earlier, her father growing up in the Mission Concepción neighborhood. She described efforts over the decades to protect the Missions that date back to the 1930s.
Matey said the SACVB has a digital marketing campaign that aims to bring more Millennials to San Antonio.
Guarino said the 344-page World Heritage application, which Snow prepared with the help of many, is the “road map” to protecting and sensitively developing in the years ahead. The challenge, he aid, will be pulling together all the players and all the existing master plans to successfully move forward.
One major challenge in addition to funding will be balancing preservation with development and protecting both the “view shed” of the four Missions, and also making sure that surrounding development is compatible and respects the character and integrity of the setting. Already, developers want to build a multifamily project across from Mission San José, where a longtime property owner is said to be seeking $2 million for his undeveloped parcels.
Terry Ybañez, an artist and inner city public school educator, attended the luncheon wearing a colorful, hand-made mobile of the four Missions. She spoke from the audience during the Q&A period and said the City’s Mission Overlay District ordinance is inadequate to protect the neighborhood.
State Rep. Roland Gutierrez (D-119) agreed.
“We have people who want to build apartments around our Missions. I think we can do better than that.”
Guarino had the last word: “This is going to be a balancing act.”
Featured/top image: Armando Santiago stands outside the Hyatt Regency protesting the construction of apartments outside of the historic Missions. Photo by Scott Ball.